The Crooked Bannister or, if you judge a book by its cover, Nancy Vs. the Evil Robot!
Hold onto your hats, Nancy Drew fans. This is one of the good ones. Which, of course, will inevitably lead to a less amusing review. But still.
The Crooked Bannister is one of my favorites, in part because it has one of the weirdest and best villains, Rawley Banister. Not only has he excelled in swindling the masses out of their money, but he's used those ill-gotten gains to build the kind of house that children might dare each other to approach on Halloween, a house that was both awesome and looked like what would happen if architecture was a sentient being that threw up everywhere. First of all, there is a moat surrounding the house that catches fire when you cross it--mega cool. Then, there's an evil robot that plays cassette tapes. There is a creepy portrait hall with paintings of relatives covered in poison-dipped black ink and, finally, there is the titular crooked banister that seems to run straight through the floor instead of ending at the base of the landing. So, as you might expect, just in setting alone, this book gets an A+.
Nancy starts on the case at the behest of her father, whose kindly clients have been swindled by the nefarious Rawley Banister. He insists because of the danger involved that Nancy bring her friends George and Bess along and, because, they're apparently never in school, working or doing anything, they are happy to come along.
Unfortunately, the kindly Bess is herself swindled by an accomplice of Banister, Clyde Mead. He convinces her to send money to a poor and starving young boy on a reservation and then starts to send her fake letters with pictures of the young boy. Wait. Is Sally Struthers also an accomplice of Rawley Banister? Is that reference just a tad outdated? Either way, George basically makes Bess feel like Queen Doofus of Idiotville for sending the money.
After the swindle, and numerous sticky situations at the Banister house, Nancy brings in more reinforcements in the shape of Ned, Burt and Dave. The rest of the mystery sees some spectacular kickings of our gang's ass, but not even by the villain himself. No, he's set up his Smart House (so ahead of its time...) to release evil robots, poison, maim and potentially burn alive any intruders. I've got to be honest here: after a while, I start to really respect Rawley Banister. Most Nancy Drew villains are lurking in the shadows, sending threatening notes or locking her in closets to "teach her a lesson" when all it ever does is strengthen her resolve. This guy just lets his house do it. Brilliant.
In the end, it turns out Rawley Banister died in a water cruiser explosion (Wow, another jet ski explosion? Doesn't it seem like people in this universe should avoid them if they're so prone to fiery deaths for the passenger?) and Clyde Mead tries to take over villain duties. Unfortunately for Clyde, he didn't build an awesome house that will kill for him. Sorry, Clyde. Game over.
This one is one of the best, although has the least fodder for reviewing silliness. I'll be back soon with The Secret of Mirror Bay!